Sheffield University trials 20-minute oral cancer test

A non-invasive test for oral cancer that could provide diagnoses in under 20 minutes is being trialled at Sheffield University.

The test involves collecting cells from a patient’s mouth using a brush and inserting them into an analysing device, and is simple enough to one day become a common procedure for dentists.

Current testing methods involve using a scalpel to remove mouth tissue and sending it to a pathologist for study, which can take a week or more to get results at cost to the NHS and causes distress for patients.

The innovative technology which is used to analyse the cells
The innovative technology which is used to analyse the cells

Prof Martin Thornhill, who is leading the two-year trial at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, told The Engineer that the test ‘would markedly speed and simplify the whole diagnostic process and it is possible that many patients could have this done in their dentist’s or doctor’s surgery without the need for a hospital visit.’

The technology is already being adapted for detecting other cancers such as prostate and identifying patients at risk of problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The test is based on a disposable nano-bio-chip (NBC) that looks like a credit card and slots into the battery-powered portable machine, known as a lab-on-a-chip (LOC) analyser.

Cell samples are placed on the card, inserted into the LOC and then washed through microfluidic circuits into a reaction chamber, where they come into contact with biomarkers that react with diseased cells.

Healthy and diseased cells can then be distinguished by the way they glow in response to two LEDs inside the machine.

Prof John McDevitt from Rice University in Texas developed the test with an international research team funded by $2m (£1.3m) from the US National Institutes of Health.

Sheffield was chosen for the trials because of its expertise in biomarker analysis and because it is easier to identify oral cancer patients through the NHS than the US healthcare system.

Thornhill said: ‘The current study will optimise the assays [measurements] performed by the NBC and ensure that the test is as sensitive and specific at diagnosing suspicious oral lesions as the current biopsy test… We would hope to see the assay in use within three to five years.’

Improved diagnosis could play an important role in fighting oral cancer. Patients have a survival rate of 50 per cent – among the lowest for all major cancers. But in cases where the cancer is detected early, more than 90 per cent of patients survive longer than five years.